Chasing skirts, ingesting cocaine, advertising his own genius, failing to mark grades on time -- what, a member of the Johns Hopkins University faculty?
Well, yes and no.
It is one of the distinct curiosities of the summer that a best-selling tome about 19th-century intellectual history, Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, has uncloaked this shadowy figure in Baltimore history. Tracing the development of America's most important philosophical contribution to the world -- pragmatism -- the book introduces the tragic, seamy and engrossing tale of a bygone Hopkins philosopher whom some insist today was an American Aristotle.
Bad boy, brainiac, braggart ...
Meet Charles Peirce, the turbulent creator of pragmatism. He came to teach in Baltimore in 1879, managed in five years to horrify President Daniel Coit Gilman, fall victim to faculty backbiting and find himself blackballed from the academy for the remainder of his days. Perhaps the most innovative thinker in America at the time, he fled Baltimore to live in obscurity in rural Pennsylvania, died in poverty and was banished from memory for well over 100 years after his clashes at Hopkins. Even today, on a campus well populated with life-size bronzes, memorials and plaques that recall the university's notable intellectual contributions, Hopkins has no obvious recollection of one of its most consequential characters.
"I keep track of all the people who Hopkins has fired, and the greatest of all who have been fired is Peirce," said Dick Macksey, a Hopkins professor of comparative literature. "People are still speculating why his contract wasn't renewed."
Although the book climbed onto best-seller lists several weeks ago and has been selling out at area stores, on campus, interest is less than fervent.
"The Metaphysical Club?" replied a Hopkins bookstore manager when asked how it was selling last week. "Is that a book?"
A query through the university's communications office prompted only one response from an administrator who has read the book. "I knew his philosophy and knew he was fairly dissolute and knew he had a hard time keeping a job," said Darren Lacey, managing director of the Information Security Institute, who first studied Peirce in graduate school. "But I didn't know the circumstances behind his difficulties at Hopkins until I read the book."
Not a fashionable figure
The details of Peirce's history at Hopkins do have a place, though -- tucked away in a file drawer in the philosophy department's administrative office. On the third floor of Gilman Hall (named for the man responsible for Peirce's banishment), one will encounter the John Dewey Room, dedicated to one of Peirce's graduate students, and come across a portrait of Josiah Royce, a colleague inspired by Peirce.
But pragmatism's founding father? In a brief, yellowing history of the department, which a secretary retrieves from a file, Peirce is described as "an intransigent and no politician" and "a peculiar genius." Among his problems, the history notes a falling-out with a certain talented mathematician on campus and some apparent differences of opinion with President Gilman about either religious issues or "personal considerations."
But then, there is always talk.
"Everybody knows he was here and that he was fired in one of the more disgraceful moments of the university," observed Jerome Schneedwind, who believes he is now the only professor in the department who discusses Peirce among the students. "But he's not fashionable."
In Menand's book, Peirce appears as one of the giants of American intellectual history, joining William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1872 as a member of a short-lived "conversation society" in Cambridge, Mass., known as the Metaphysical Club. There, members heard young Peirce, the son of a Harvard University mathematician, describe an idea based in the science of statistics that he labeled pragmatism. Within a short time, Peirce also brought the idea to Hopkins and began a second Metaphysical Club. But the philosophy did not surface publicly until more than 20 years later, when James and Holmes and Dewey began to proclaim it as the new American gospel.
Pragmatism -- the assertion that truths are not pre-existing, but merely grow out of ideas that can be fashioned and discarded as required -- became the most effective lens that people had to understand the world after the Civil War. While Charles Darwin's theory of evolution undermined providential authority and the war shattered the nation's intellectual culture, pragmatism proved enormously successful. While Holmes, James and Dewey brought it thundering into American life, where it served well into the 1950s, Peirce helplessly watched his ideas being contorted and bastardized, and puzzled over how he had managed to fail himself so miserably.